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AT the heart of Arsenal’s 2004 Invincibles side was a centre-back partnership the club have attempted to replace and replicate many times since.

Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure started alongside each other in 25 of the Gunners’ incredible 38-game unbeaten Prem title-winning sequence that continues to stand the test of time.

Sol Campbell is happy with Arsenal’s centre-back duo.
Those that followed under Invincibles orchestrator Arsene Wenger failed to live up to that pair’s North London icon status in stature and ability.

New double acts could not produce the same results.

William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.

The less said about Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos — with a sprinkling of David Luiz — under ex-boss Unai Emery the better.

But maybe, just maybe, almost 20 years on since Campbell and Toure led them to their last league title, Arsenal have finally formed a duo capable of emulating the greats of the past.

Campbell — a two-time Prem champ with 211 Arsenal appearances across two spells — believes current boss Mikel Arteta has a hold of the real deal in William Saliba and Gabriel.

Asked if Saliba and Gabriel are Arsenal’s best pairing since his Invincibles days, Campbell, 49, told SunSport: “You’d have to say ‘yes’.

“You don’t want to disrespect the others that have come after me and before this current partnership but Gabriel and Saliba have come just at the right time for Arsenal.

“Right now, it is beautiful. They have been given time to build a relationship. They’re playing incredible football and they’re not mucking about.

“You can see the will in their eyes, the fire in their bellies.

“It is not perfect, yet it is so strong. They have real confidence. Once you get it, never disrespect it.

“That old Roman saying of never resting on your laurels, that’s when big mistakes can happen.

“You win titles and cups by having a strong backline pair, and Arsenal have that to look forward to over the next few years. Long may it last.”

Forget about spreadsheets, statistics and xG — in Campbell’s eyes, forming that telepathic bond between central defenders is the key to sustaining title charges.

Toure, now 42, joined Arsenal for £150,000 in February 2002 before making his full debut six months later.

Campbell — poached from bitter rivals Tottenham on a free the previous summer — was already seasoned.

It was not until the 2003-04 campaign that a bond was moulded as Campbell, then 28, took a 22-year-old Toure under his wing before soaring to footballing immortality.

Campbell explained: “Kolo was just one of those lovable characters. He was one of the lads and he also had all the attributes I needed in a partner. Vision, skill, pace, brains.

“But you need a common connection mentally.

“A consciousness that supersedes everything else. In the biggest games, you haven’t got time to look up.

“You need to know he is there. At that level, if you have to scream at your partner to do something or to cover you after making a mistake, it is too late.

“That bond takes time but it takes openness, too. Kolo was willing to listen, willing to work hard, and he managed to do it all with a smile.

“And for me, I was open and wanting to help him grow.

“We were the perfect partnership in that sense. We had discipline, we had fun and we loved the game.

Gabriel and Saliba are becoming one of the best duos in the Premier League.
“It took a while to develop into something incredible but we came from a good source so it was easy to crack on.”

There appears to be a similar connection between Gabriel, 25, and Saliba, 22, whose partnership blossomed in last season’s painful late title collapse.

It took time. Gabriel joined from Lille in September 2020, while Saliba was with the Under-23s before the second of three loan spells back in his native France.

They have played alongside each other in ten of Arsenal’s 15 Prem outings this season so far and have formed a good friendship on and off the pitch, often seen joking around at London Colney.

They are back on top of the Prem with the joint-best defence in the division ahead of the trip to third-placed Aston Villa. Campbell remembers joining Arsenal in July 2001 when the likes of Tony Adams and Martin Keown were already experienced defenders in a phenomenal dressing room.

He recalled: “Tony turned to me and said, ‘The last time we won something [in 1998], we had three proper centre-halves’. That gave me such confidence. You latch on to it.”

Saliba and Gabriel are without that guiding hand, not that Campbell feels they need it.

But he said: “To move on to another level, they need to control not only what they’re doing but what is in front of them, too. Stop a problem becoming your own problem.”

David Raya has not been convincing since replacing Aaron Ramsdale.
Campbell believes Arsenal have a back four good enough to go one better than last season and snatch the title away from Manchester City — but for one nagging concern.

He said: “The only sticky part is the David Raya/Aaron Ramsdale situation.

“In those really tense moments, on a knife-edge, you need to know exactly what your goalkeeper is going to do.

“If it keeps on changing, or if this situation carries on, no centre-half will turn around and say, ‘Yeah, we don’t mind’.






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